Sponsors' gifts present a problem

Travelers took goods, services valued above $50 limit as part of expenses

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 Updated:

In January 2003, Katherine E. Dedrick went to the Kona Hawaiian Resort to speak at a conference sponsored by the American Association of Airport Executives, a trade group.

During her seven-day stay, the legislative assistant to Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., also found time for some recreation, courtesy of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) labor union. The disclosure form she initially filed with the House ethics committee revealed that she took a snorkeling trip and two helicopter tours, at a total reported cost of $560.

According to DeFazio's office, the ethics committee found that Dedrick's participation in two of the outings was an apparent violation of House ethics rules, which stipulate that such recreational activities "are rarely acceptable" unless valued at less than $50.

The Senate has similar rules. Both the House and the Senate define a gift as any "gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other item having monetary value."

Dedrick wasn't alone. A Center for Public Integrity analysis of disclosure forms for trips during a 5½-year period beginning in January 2000 found that more than 50 other congressional travelers also accepted gifts valued at more than $49.99.

Because of the poor quality of information on the disclosure forms, it's difficult to ascertain the full extent of gift rules violations. The Center found that about 2,000 of the almost 3,800 filings listing "other expenses" of $50 or more provided no details.

The gifts documented by the Center ranged from spa services to sports outings:

  • The Wine Institute, a trade group of California wineries, paid $105 for "spa services" for Ethie Radanovich, wife of Rep. George P. Radanovich, R-Calif., when the couple visited Napa Valley on an October 2003 educational tour. The congressman's spokesman, Michael Lukens, told the Center that Radanovich is writing a check to cover the cost. "If he hasn't done it, he's going to do it in the next day or two," Lukens said.
  • In April 2004, the Railway Supply Institute paid $325 for a "golf outing" for Michael Sullivan, an aide to Rep. Michael R. McNulty, D-N.Y., during a congressional staff retreat in Florida. Sullivan said the trip was approved by McNulty, and the House ethics committee never raised any questions about the golfing expenses. "If there's a problem and I would have to reimburse, I would do that," Sullivan said. "But I never heard from them."
  • In August 2003, ING Bank bought a $72 ticket to a New York Yankees baseball game for Evan Keefer, then-press secretary to Rep. Spencer T. Bachus, R-Ala. Keefer, who has since then left Bachus's office, could not be reached for comment. Bachus's office refused to comment on the ticket for this report.

Interviews with dozens of congressional staffers, including some who accepted gifts, revealed that violators are rarely penalized. Often, the matter is closed when the gift recipient reimburses the sponsor.

DeFazio's aide, Dedrick, was told by the House ethics committee to reimburse NATCA, the union that paid for her snorkeling trip and one of her helicopter rides in Hawaii. She was not instructed to reimburse the sponsor for the other ride because the outing included a briefing. Dedrick filed an amended form on Dec. 9, 2005, reflecting the reimbursement to NATCA.

"It was an oversight, and it was rectified as soon as it was brought to our attention," former DeFazio spokeswoman Kristie Greco said last December.

The House ethics committee's "Gifts and Travel" guide warns members and their aides about the risks of accepting gifts.

"Quite clearly," the guide booklet says, "the receipt of gifts or favors from certain persons or special interests may interfere with this impartial judgment. The recipient of a gift will naturally feel grateful, and the giver may expect favorable treatment or consideration in return."

The booklet makes it clear that acceptance of gifts should not lead to the "appearance" or even the "inference" of improper action.

Staffers insist they're trying hard to avoid violations.

"Everyone is being extra, extra careful," said an aide who admitted having broken the gift rule but did not want to be named in order "not to bring embarrassment to [himself] and his office."

In the wake of recent lobbying scandals, some in Congress have called for greater disclosure and oversight of privately sponsored travel. Rep. Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., proposed a bill that would require a detailed description of each trip lawmakers and staffers accept, and a "description of all meetings, tours, events, and outings during such travel." The bill was referred to three House committees, but no action has been taken since May 2005.

"More than individual cases of scandal, the rules governing ethics and lobbying are scandalous, and the system is in need of real reform," Meehan told the Center in a written statement.

M. Asif Ismail contributed to this report.

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